The Myth of Marco Rubio’s Immigration Problem

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is losing altitude with some conservatives because he’s the Republican face of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Yet he’ll have a lot of company in the 2016 field if he runs for the GOP presidential nomination.

In fact almost every Republican weighing a 2016 race—from Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal—favors some path to citizenship like the one in the comprehensive reform bill passed by the Senate, or is open to a variation of it.

“Any Republican with a national perspective understands the dynamics of the politics of the 21st century,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, a Rubio adviser. That is, the Hispanic share of the electorate is rising fast, and the GOP share of Hispanic votes keeps falling.

You wouldn’t think it given the resistance of the Republican-run House, but many polls show that most Republicans favor comprehensive reform that includes a path to citizenship, as long as it includes fines, waiting periods, and other conditions that amount to what Ayres calls “penance” for being in the United States illegally.

Most polls over the past few years find one-quarter to one-third of Republicans will never support citizenship for illegal immigrants regardless of the state of security on the border or the conditions attached, Ayres says. By contrast, just in the last few days, a poll of 1,000 Republican primary voters for a pro-reform GOP group called Americans for a Conservative Direction found 65 percent favor a path to citizenship in combination with "substantially increased border security." A June 13-July 5 Gallup poll of 4,373 people showed that 83 percent of non-Hispanic white conservatives favor "allowing illegal immigrants to have the opportunity to become citizens."

While one poll—a June 28-July 8 Quinnipiac poll of 2,014 people released Friday—found somewhat less GOP support, it still showed 54 percent of Republicans backed either allowing eventual citizenship or allowing people to stay in the United States legally.

The evolution of public opinion and a dire political need for the GOP to start digging out of the hole it’s in with Hispanic and Asian voters are two of the reasons many Republicans with national ambitions are not shying away from citizenship and legalization issues.

Rubio brokered the Senate bill as part of the Gang of Eight, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, is trying to work out a compromise in the House. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has expressed support for a path to citizenship as has Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, though Jindal opposed the Senate bill for other reasons. Christie, New Jersey’ popular governor, supported a citizenship path in 2010, before it was popular in his party. Sen. Jeff Chiesa, the close associate Christie named to fill the seat when Democrat Frank Lautenberg died, voted for the Senate bill.

Florida’s former governor, Jeb Bush, has said he is open to a path to citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants while Texas Gov. Perry and Kentucky’s Paul also are open to what the senator calls “normalizing their status,” depending on the state of border security.

Among the most hardline of the 2016 prospects is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has introduced amendments blocking a path to citizenship, calling it unfair to those who waited in line to arrive legally. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a 2012 aspirant who says he is “very open” to a 2016 race, told radio host Andrea Tantaro last month that there will be “consequences” in the primaries for Rubio. He says the attitude among some Washington Republicans seems to be that “the rule of law isn't that important,” that people who came to the United States illegally will be treated the same as those who came legally.

While there are indications that Rubio’s role in the immigration debate isn’t helping him among Republicans, it’s way too early for polls to be relevant and in any case the damage for now appears minimal. For instance, a Rasmussen Reports automated poll in June found that Rubio’s favorability rating among Republicans nationally had dropped 15 points since February—but it is still at 58 percent.

Opposition to immigration reform, particularly from the tea party wing of the GOP, is intense and vociferous but also misleading, given that two-thirds of Republicans support a path to citizenship if there are strict conditions that go along with it. House members, says Ayres, are “reacting to what they hear from people who take the time to write, call and email their offices. There aren’t any Republicans that are going to write their congressman demanding a path to citizenship. It’s not the kind of thing that makes you charge the ramparts.”

Sal Russo, a Sacramento-based former Ronald Reagan aide who is co-founder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, says those who oppose a path to citizenship are fired up now and determined that undocumented immigrants should not be rewarded for violating the law. “It’s an important principle, but of course, politics is about the realities of things,” Russo says. “It’s a difficult thing for some people to swallow, but at the end of the day people think we have to fix the immigration system.”

Russo himself takes the long view, having been around in 1978, when Reagan opposed a ban on gay teachers in California, and 1994, when Jack Kemp opposed Proposition 187 denying social services to illegal immigrants. People predicted conservatives would never support either of them again—"so silly," he says. He predicts the citizenship controversy "won't be a material factor" in 2016, especially if Congress takes immigration off the table by passing something, however imperfect.

Certainly hard-line candidates will hold appeal to some GOP primary voters. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that seeks to limit immigration, sees Cruz as "the obvious person" to fill that niche. "The fact that most of the other 2016 prospects are for either the Senate bill or something like it creates an opportunity for Cruz to differentiate himself," he says.

But after two terms of President Obama, many Republicans will be looking for a general-election winner. Support of comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, could well evolve into a proxy for inclusiveness, compassion, and the broad appeal that could finally put the party back in the White House.